Interview with a Designer: Jay Colvin of Macmillan Children's (plus a giveaway!)

Today we are joined by my friend, Jay Colvin, a fabulous designer at Macmillan Children's Publishing Group, whom I had the pleasure of working with for many years when I was an editor there. Jay is also offering a giveaway of a pretty spectacular book, so be sure to enter to win!

(Side note: As evidence that Jay is a kick-ass designer, let's all take a gander at one of my favorite books he designed. Which is, uh, mine. Plug for Lisa's book!)

(Seriously, though, it's super awesome, right?? I told you Jay was fabulous!)

Okay, enough dilly-dally. Let's get started with our interview . . .

What is the name of your publishing house/imprint and what is your official title?

I work at Farrar Straus Giroux Books for Young Readers and Roaring Brook Press, which are both imprints of Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group. My title is senior designer.

What does a typical day look like for you?

Well, they’re never quite the same. It all varies depending on whether there’s a jacket meeting or a production meeting, or illustrators coming in to go over dummies or art that day [Ed note: for those of you who don't know what picture book dummies are, check out this amazing article by FSG author/illustrator Uri Shulevitz]. Some days are completely crazy and some days you can really just sort of Zen out and get totally absorbed in working on an interior text design. Also you can pretty much count on random requests for jacket jpegs or pdfs of picture book interiors.

What made you decide to become a book designer? What was your career path?

I went to school for graphic design at the University of Cincinnati College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning (DAAP). We had a co-op program where after your sophomore year you worked somewhere every other quarter. You had to send out portfolios and interview, wherever you wanted to work, just like a real job. I had been to New York when I was 19, when the Airwalk shoe company paid for me to come to the city and skateboard as part of a promotional campaign, and I was just hooked right away, especially for the skating. So for my first co-op job I went for a New York design studio, Gerstman and Myers, that specialized in packaging, lots of Proctor & Gamble stuff. I learned to make perfect comps with silk gloves on.

After that I worked for a small studio in Philadelphia called Hemman Design, working on some animation and internet stuff, and then at some more traditional corporate identity and packaging places. When I graduated and moved to New York I bounced around for a bit freelancing for a few design studios, still doing packaging stuff, before taking a fulltime job working for American Photo Magazine. I’d always wanted to do books, but every place wanted you to have experience designing books. I eventually got my foot in the door at FSG thanks to some generous and kind people who took a chance on me even though I had no professional book experience. I’ve been here ever since, going on nine years.

When most people think about book designers, they tend to focus on them as jacket (or cover) designers. What else does a designer’s job entail?

With kids books we design the whole thing—jacket, interior, case, etc—so you’re constantly shifting back and forth between different modes of thinking. The good thing is that when you work on the whole thing, the design of the entire book as an object is coherent. Also, picture books are totally different. With those, you could be working on the same book for years before it’s printed. I've just gotten final art in for a book I started working on about five years ago.

What, if anything, is different about designing a middle-grade book (as opposed to, say, a YA novel or an easy-reader)?

The easiest answer is that sales always wants a photographic treatment for YA stuff, and an illustrative one for middle-grade. Aside from that, with the middle-grade stuff you have to get used to designing with bigger type and figuring out how to make that look not like crap. Other than those things, with the younger stuff you’ll often have illustrations thoughout the interior, so factoring those in is part of the fun.

What aspect of your job do you find the most challenging?

None at all. It’s all easy for me. Like taking candy from a baby.

Are there any titles that you’ve worked on that you’re particularly proud of?

Sophie Simon was a good one. Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You, by Peter Cameron, was interesting because it was paperbacked by Picador [the imprint for adult books at FSG] and they used the design I did for the YA publication, which I’m still surprised I got away with since it’s farther on the sophistiated side than I’m normally allowed to go. It’s the only time one of my designs has been used on an “adult” cover. That book was published a few years ago, but for some reason it's been getting a good bit of well deserved attention lately. I’m proud of everything though, in all honestly. A great thing about FSG and RBP is that we do really good books that are easy to be proud of.

Can you give us a general idea of the process of conceptualizing and creating a book jacket? For example, who is involved in the process, and how many stages does a book jacket generally go through before it is finished?

I’d like to put forward this extract from an interview between Tom Waits and Roberto Benigni. Substitute “book jacket” for “film” and “music.”

TOM WAITS: Because film and music are expeditions and sometimes you have no map. You just go drifting, and you go many days without water or food. When I am making music, I don't change my clothes for two full months.

ROBERTO BENIGNI: You know who did this, too? Michelangelo. He painted the Sistine Chapel. He never washed himself, he never changed clothes, especially shoes and socks.

ROBERTO BENIGNI: Michelangelo tried to take the socks off and skin came off with the socks. He never changed his clothes until he was finished, and was completely revolting.

TOM WAITS: Sometimes when you finish, you take the clothes and you put them in a pile, and you burn them. You make a fire of all your clothes. Sometimes to be a leader you must be a child, you must be a stinking idiot.
ROBERTO BENIGNI: Absolutely. You must be a stinking idiot.
That sounds about right. It’s all a balancing act where the author has to be happy, editorial has to be happy, and sales has to be happy. Sometimes getting there is easy, other times, not so much.

How closely do you generally work with an author or an illustrator on his or her book?

It varies. There are a fair number of authors that I’ve designed multiple books for over the years. Charlie Price for example, I’ve done three jackets for him now. I think the closer you work with them the better. These are things that they’ve been working on for some time, and it’s nice to be able to give them the attention to make sure the thing ends up being what it should be.

Lastly (and most important), if you were forced to live next door to either a ukulele player or a bagpipe player (bagpipist?), which would you choose and why?

I’m going with a steel drum player. Self explanatory.

Thanks for taking the time to visit with us, Jay. This has been a very enlightening interview!



Jay is offering one lucky blog reader a copy of Peter Cameron's stupendous YA novel, Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You (which Lorrie Morre called, in The New York Review of Books, "a bravura performance" and "a stunning little book." So there you go.). To enter the giveaway, simply email me at graff [dot] lisa [at] yahoo [dot] com with the subject line "SOMEDAY THIS PAIN." The winner will be chosen at random on February 1st.

The giveaway is now closed. Congrats to our winner, Irene!


  1. LOVED this interview...Seeing a book's "skin" is such a big moment for an author; it's really fascinating to hear what goes on behind the scenes! And I love what Jay came up with for SOPHIE, Lisa!

  2. Wow nice to see Lisa & Jay working together again. Two really nice talented people..


  3. I loved reading this - so fascinating to think about that end of the publishing process! Thanks for the interview, Lisa and Jay.

  4. Jay's job is SO IMPORTANT. I realize more and more how much difference the cover art and book design makes. And yes to steel drums! :) Thanks for the interview!

  5. Thanks, all! (And thanks so much to Jay!)


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